Phase One: Ignorance
I grew up in a time when being gay was intolerable. The very idea was scandalous and frightening. No academic resource or medical advice said otherwise. Whatever interests or inclinations we might have had were dismissed as something else than expressions of essential reality. Only in retrospect were my own many little incidents understood accurately.
Phase Two: Arousal
In the summer of 1956 I had a major “religious experience” that formed the very core of my identity and direction. From that experience on, nothing else mattered as much as following the “call to ministry”. Any departure from that line for my life was to be rejected. That included, of course, all moral recourses. I did, eventually (at age 22), resolve my conflict over masturbation once I began to find medical and then religious teaching that permitted it. But the “great test” came in the summer after my 27th birthday when I was a hospital patient and a male nursing assistant gave me a sponge bath that included the bold suggestion that we could go further. It scared me out of my wits. The only thoughts I had was how much I wanted him to take over, and how I was sure it would mean discovery, disgrace and dismissal from my church position and the end of my whole life path. Fear won that day.
Phase Three: Denial
I resolved to take the cure that the experts all agreed would work, and that was to get married. Sex in marriage would overcome all other interests. Within a year I was married. For a decade that was pretty fine. Then came a second decade when I knew I was struggling and losing the battle to divert my attention. I could do OK except when I was asleep. My dreams were out of control. They spurred fantasies I knew were hopes, voyeur efforts that became suspected by others, and other adventures that were out of control but I convinced even myself were just studies. The third decade is when it all fell to pieces.
Phase Four: Collapse
By 1990 medical and even religious advice was concluding that sexual diversity is not against the design of nature as had been contended for centuries, nor was sexual activity contrary to God’s will for life. I was still convinced that there was possibly a cure for my obsessive interests and impulses. I explored all of them except aversion therapy. Finally I gave up and tried one last thing. I decided to have a go at gay sex. At the time, I was convinced that I would find it so repulsive that would be the cure. For years I had been fascinated by a former student, now graduated and living with a boyfriend. I confessed my plan to get “a gay massage” to try out gay sex. He offered to be my teacher instead. One night in June 1995 we had sex. My defenses collapsed. It was the first sex of my life that was fulfilling, and not just satisfactory. I knew instantly I had discovered the best way for me to have sex. That led to 5 years of effort to accommodate my commitments to our marriage, my ordination vows and ministry, and this new reality. Eventually that did not work.
Phase five: Resolution
In 2000 things came to a head. My marriage had unraveled into a “trial separation”. I got a case of Hepatitis B as a result of unprotected sex with a tourist in the most famous gay spa in Bangkok. I nearly died, but Pramote, a Thai friend, stayed resolutely by my side night and day. It dawned on me that he loved me. When I recovered my wife announced she was going to get a divorce and I agreed to it. At that period I had another “religious experience” of call to ministry in which I “heard” Christ say to me, “Why are you not ministering to gay people as I have directed you to do?” I cannot exaggerate how liberating that experience was, although I knew nothing about how to really do ministry like that. Gay ministry in an overwhelmingly Buddhist setting would take a form I had never imagined. It was very unlike any ministry I had ever considered. I also began work away from Chiang Mai in order to have distance from my past and because the opportunity came. So Pramote and I began life together in Nakhon Pathom and Bangkok. This meant I was in a relationship. When a conservative missionary denounced this and incited the church leadership “to pray for me”, I was obliged to withdraw from church work and began a new career in higher education administration. Coming out for me included not only coming out of the closet and giving up trying to be discrete or to hide my sexual identity, but also getting out of one marriage and into a second one, and being out of institutional forms of pastoral ministry into unexplored ministerial territory.
Postscript: Pramote and I were married in a Thai ceremony twenty years ago. We were later officially married in the USA. Both of our families are reconciled to our committed relationship and so is our village community. We live on a small farm outside of Chiang Mai.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.